The Pop Culture Winners and Losers of Super Bowl LVIII

While Taylor Swift lived out a real love story, another pop superstar saved us from what was shaping up to be a pretty niche Super Bowl Sunday

Getty Images/Dunkin/Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration

They had us in the first half, I’m not gonna lie.

With just minutes to go before Usher’s halftime show (sponsored by Apple Music and the perfect opening beats of “Yeah!,” never forget), it seemed as if Super Bowl LVIII might make it to the confetti with hardly any football, and with hardly a relevant pop cultural moment to boot. Sure, the opening half of the broadcast brought us the surprise drop of the Wicked trailer, Blake Lively in sexy Sue Sylvester cosplay, and the Jason Kelce meeting Ice Spice meme (plus Kylie Kelce still refusing to wear Chiefs gear, Travis Kelce in a Nicole Kidman AMC Theaters costume, and Mama Kelce doing Bernie 2020 inauguration) … but for a game that had been preemptively described as “Taylor Swift’s boyfriend playing at the Usher concert,” the pop culture tidbits during the early portion of football’s biggest night felt awfully … niche.

And then Usher took the stage … and then Beyoncé announced a new album via a Verizon commercial and Tidal-based scare tactics … and then the Chiefs won the Super Bowl in action-packed overtime, ultimately giving future generations their very own version of that photo of the sailor kissing the nurse in Times Square, plus a whole lifetime’s worth of unattainable romantic notions.

Let’s get into how several dynasties were born at the 58th Super Bowl.

Winner: The Nickelodeon Broadcast

The most unexpected win of the Super Bowl was not the Chiefs’ (who are really racking them up at this point, as far as I understand it), but the revelation to non-regular Nickelodeon watchers that we could tune in to a live telecast of the game that featured the alternative commentator stylings of SpongeBob SquarePants and Patrick Star (or, rather, their impressive voice actors, Tom Kenny and Bill Fagerbakke) as they screamed things like “You have to firmly grasp it!” Which, coincidentally, is also my understanding of how to avoid a fumble.

And for a slightly more detailed explanation of football’s many rules, the SpongeBob team threw it to everyone’s favorite type A tot, Dora the Explorer, who, in between explaining false starts, also read the opposing teams for filth. Like when she asked the Chiefs and 49ers, tied at 0-0 in the first quarter, whether anyone needed a map to help them find the end zone (which was, of course, called the Slime Zone on this particular telecast). We can only hope that this Nickelodeon–Super Bowl collab is as long and contentious as that of Dora the Explorer and Swiper the Fox.

Loser: Fiscally Responsible Advertising

And let’s also hope not to see any more advertisements that make you think, “Wait, is this saying that Jesus was a foot guy?” Please and thank you!

This wasn’t the first “He Gets Us” ad at a Super Bowl (they rolled out two last year), and now that we know what the organization is (a thing run by the billionaire Hobby Lobby family to just … generally promote Jesus), we were at least a little more prepared. But what we never could have anticipated was that this year’s ad would feature quite so many feet. And coupled with the words “He washed feet,” it really makes you wonder: Why wouldn’t an organization that claims to promote Jesus’s proclivity for helping people spend its gajillion Super Bowl ad dollars actually … helping people?

This, in addition to the four ads run by e-commerce site TEMU—basically the online version of the Dollar Tree, if the Dollar Tree were also trying to scam your mom on Instagram—really had you wondering about how organizations that allegedly live and die on tithing and the sale of $1 bodysuits (respectively) are spending their money. Not well, it seems!

Winner: TV Reunions

Super Bowl commercials are made for three things: the constant reemergence of Jeff Goldblum, anthropomorphic (and most often sexy) interpretations of your favorite candies, and completely random and unexpected reunions of your favorite TV casts. The most exciting—and surely most expensive—reunion of the year was Jennifer Aniston and David Schwimmer in an Uber Eats ad about forgetting something to remember something better. (Sorry, Ross. In this universe, Rachel never got off the plane. The Uber Eats marketing team remains demented and unmatched.)

But there was also the pleasantly surprising reunion of former Parks and Rec buds Aubrey Plaza and Nick Offerman on Baja Blast–sponsored dragons. And it also turns out that every marketing exec in the biz was among the millions who got addicted to Suits in 2023: Not only did Harvey and Mike (Gabriel Macht and Patrick J. Adams) link back up for T-Mobile, but the entire supporting Suits cast shilled e.l.f. makeup products alongside Judge Judy.

And hey, not for nothing, but it continues to hit when Paramount Plus brings together its most disparate stars for those Paramount Mountain ads. Did Patrick Stewart just hurl Arnold from Hey Arnold! up a mountain peak and then threaten to skin Peppa Pig? Yeah, he did—and Drew Barrymore and Tua Tagovailoa watched.

Draw: Boston Boys

You can hardly call it a reunion when Ben Affleck and Matt Damon have remained besties for more than three decades. But still, there’s just something special about seeing them don tracksuits and readopt their original Boston accents to sling Good Will Hunting puns.

And it’s just nice to see Ben happy next to the thing he loves most—no, not his best friend or his wife, Jennifer Lopez (also featured), but his beloved Dunkin’. Half of me wonders whether he does these ads for free …

You know who definitely doesn’t, though? Tom Brady, who net neutralized his Super Bowl contributions by being funny enough in the Dunkin’ commercial but also a transparent corporate hack in his uninspiring ad for BetMGM. But at least he stayed far away from Mark Wahlberg’s ad for … praying? An app that prays? Giving up desserts for Lent? I don’t know, but I’ll be at Dunkin’ ordering whatever sugary drink Affleck assured Damon would be named after him in exchange for his begrudging participation. How ’bout that friendship?

Winner: Usher

Moments before Usher took the stage for his manifested Super Bowl halftime performance, a voice informed us that the following performance was rated “U” for potential “singing, dancing, gyrating, and possible relationship issues.” If only that warning had played before every school dance in the mid- to late aughts, because it was true then and it’s true now—the moment the beat drops on “Yeah!,” every millennial within a 100-yard radius will absolutely lose all of their inhibitions.

That is my confession, but I don’t think anyone would be surprised to hear that after that performance, which included an Alicia Keys embrace to send the mind skittering (sorry, Swizz Beatz, husband to Alicia Keys), various states of disrobing (then re-robing, then disrobing again), and more spinning around and sweat on one stage than any mortal man should be able to produce. Usher brought A-town to Sin City in his 15 minutes to shine: It was the full Usher catalog (well, mostly) in full Vegas regalia. A reminder that he is, and always has been, a superstar—now just with aerial performers.

And then came the roller skates! This performance had all the R&B majesty of “Confessions Part II,” the electric dance anthems of his EDM era, and everything in between, including, of course, his frequent, very much Super Bowl–approved collaborators. Ursher, Jon, and Luda really did do it again.

Loser: Justin Bieber Conspiracy Theorists

There were only three things missing from Usher’s tour de force halftime show: “DJ Got Us Fallin’ in Love,” a SpongeBob SquarePants hologram, and of course, Justin Bieber. Fans of the latter were so sure that Usher’s former protégé would show up for a “Somebody to Love” duet, going so far as to assure one another that Biebs was seated by the stairs at the Super Bowl so that he could make a quick exit, do a costume change (purple hoodie, of course), and materialize onstage with the rest of the Usher Extended Universe. Alas, some conspiracy theories are just too good to be true …

Winner: Beyoncé Conspiracy Theorists

AND SOME ARE NOT!!!!

Beyoncé has been wearing a cowboy hat for weeks. She has been teasing new music. She showed up at the Super Bowl, wearing a bolo tie, and finally, the moment came: a rather hilarious Verizon ad featuring Beyoncé and Tony Hale (good for him!). And from the second Beyoncé began self-referentially making fun of herself for not being able to break the Verizon 5G network in the ad, we knew—she was about to break the internet in real life. Or, at the very least, break Tidal.

Two new (country!) songs dropped in the middle of the Super Bowl, and she announced a new album, Act II, coming March 29. A call for celebration, surely. But also a call for …

Draw: Pop Culture Obsessive Anxiety Spirals

With great obsession comes great responsibility … for our thumbs to keep refreshing every single music platform until we could finally believe for ourselves that Beyoncé really dropped new music.

The precious minutes in between when Beyoncé said, “They’re ready, drop the new music” and when she actually released new music—which were filled by a teaser video on Instagram that surely indicated that Act II really would be a country album, and also by some brief agita that all major music streaming platforms had betrayed us, all while we were expected to continue watching football—felt like an eternity. We fretted, we theorized, we consoled one another with attempts to remember a Tidal login. It was torture …

But finally, the music came, along with sweet, sweet relief. Two new singles, just for us.

When we love something this much, aren’t we all winners, even when we’re losing? With the excitement of the legitimately good Twisters trailer comes the fear that it could still undermine its source material. With the thrill of finally getting eyes on the Wicked Part 1 teaser trailer comes the obsessive questions about why we would already be seeing the Wizard in Part 1, and why they’re already spoiling the “Defying Gravity” riff, and why … it … sounds like that? But it’s Cynthia Erivo, so everything should be fine, right? Everything should be fine, RIGHT?

The most culturally relevant thing Taylor Swift could have done during this Super Bowl was retreat to the corner of Travis Kelce’s box to pull her own hair out while donning her AirPods to listen to “Texas Hold ’Em” as soon as humanly possible, just like the rest of us nerds …

Draw: Taylor Swift Conspiracy Theorists

The second most culturally relevant thing Taylor Swift could have done was sway the results of the Super Bowl, which she obviously did. (Or she was just there to support her boyfriend. It depends on whom you ask.)

It was going to be hard for Swift to win her first Super Bowl appearance no matter what. A win allows a bunch of weirdos (ahem, Joe Biden) to continue pretending that an entire NFL season is a psyop. But if the Chiefs had lost, there would’ve been that strange contingent of people who said that her presence distracted Kelce and his teammates (ah, misogyny, our greatest American tradition!).

So given those stakes, yeah, it was hard for Taylor to win …

Winner: Real-Life Rom-Coms

But as it turns out, it was also hard for Taylor to lose.

With all the hubbub around Taylor’s flight from Tokyo and Kelce’s constant presence in the tabloid headlines—plus his blowup at the top of the broadcast (somehow resulting in a perfect NFL-Wicked crossover meme)—it’s easy to forget what actually happened. A pop star fell in love with a superstar football player while she was touring the globe with a sold-out concert and he was making his way toward the Super Bowl, which he ultimately won under her glowing gaze after she’d flown in to watch him between shows …

That’s fan fiction. That’s a fairy tale.

Except it’s not. It was real. And we watched it—an IRL rom-com with a picture-perfect ending:

Perhaps blissfully—for football fanatics, pop culture lovers, and the vast array of Taylor Swift fans in between—this Super Bowl was surprisingly light on Taylor and Travis, right up until that ending. And in terms of winning narratives, you’ve gotta admit, it was a pretty good game and a pretty good love story. To quote the woman herself: Baby, just say yes.

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